What Police Stories Teach Us

TV Police

What we choose to watch in film and on television says so much about us because these stories offer up, in plain sight, an encoding of our values in narrative form. If you want to understand the hopes, dreams, anxieties and fears of a people, just look to their entertainment.

The past several weeks since the killing of George Floyd have coincided with a cultural realization—a frustratingly belated one, for many—that the stories we watch about police and the criminal justice system are crucial and even overt pillars in our society’s structural racism. And we’ve all been okay with it, even enthusiastic about it, for as long as these stories have been told. Two recent examinations of police portrayals on television bear this out.

Fiction vs. Fact

The first is a report released in January by the non-profit research group Color of Change and The USC Annenberg Norman Lear Center, which offers fascinating and unprecedented insight into the way scripted television shows manipulate our perceptions of policing and crime. Titled “Normalizing Injustice: The Dangerous Misrepresentations That Define Television’s Scripted Crime Genre,” the report bills itself as “A comprehensive study of how television’s most popular genre excludes writers of color, miseducates people about the criminal justice system and makes racial injustice acceptable.” Researchers watched hundreds of episodes from twenty-six different scripted crime shows from the 2017-2018 television series, while also collecting demographic data for the shows’ creators, show runners and writers, as well as data on the shooting locations and police and military consultants used by the producers.

Normalizing Injustice found that the crime TV genre—the main way that tens of millions of people learn to think about the criminal justice system—advanced debunked ideas about crime, a false hero narrative about law enforcement, and distorted representations about Black people, other people of color and women. These shows rendered racism invisible and dismissed any need for police accountability. They made illegal, destructive and racist practices within the criminal justice system seem acceptable, justifiable and necessary—even heroic. The study found that the genre is also incredibly un-diverse in terms of creators, writers and showrunners: nearly all white.

The report is available to download in full but there’s an abridged version too, which makes for a brisk overview of many troubling trends. These include the finding that a majority of the studied series depicted ostensibly virtuous police performing wrongful or unlawful acts, thereby framing extrajudicial actions as “relatable, forgivable, acceptable and ultimately good.” This behavior goes largely unchallenged in the shows’ scripts, but on the occasions when it is called into question, show writers rely predominantly on characters of color or women to voice the objections, thereby fueling the idea that it’s not up to white males to abide by the letter of the law.

More egregious is the finding that, across virtually all of the shows, these wrongful actions take place entirely outside of the context of racial bias. They seem to posit a world without racial profiling, excessive use of force, prosecutorial overzealousness or other common abuses of the law. Meanwhile, the depiction of who is victimized by crime is largely skewed towards white men and women, with show plots least likely to focus on black women as victims. It’s as if the shows go so far out of their way to present an ideal of race-blind law enforcement that they’re oblivious to the unmistakably racist signals that they’re sending about who should be policed and who should be protected.

There is a lot of data in this “Normalizing Injustice” report and if you watch any of these shows, it’s illuminating to pore over the statistics of which series do better or worse in various measures. It’s a reminder of how powerful fiction can be to our understanding of who we are and the world around us.

Fact-ish vs. Fiction

Perhaps even more powerful than pure fiction though is fiction dressed up as documentary content. If you’ve ever watched “Cops,” or the even more bread-and-circuses-style “Live PD” you’ll be familiar with the voyeuristic thrill of “riding along” with real police officers from the comfort of your living room. These shows are the best and worst of television in that they expertly and brazenly exploit the unique advantages of the medium: the ability to reflect back to us a heavily distorted, deeply transfixing vision of our own anxieties and make it available for continuous, passive consumption, all without meaningful consideration of morality or consequences. They’re horrific trash but it takes real fortitude to look away.

Actually, as a society we’ve somehow found the fortitude to do just that in the past few weeks as, shockingly, “Cops” was canceled after thirty-two seasons on 12 Jun and, shortly thereafter, “Live PD” was also shut down despite being the financial and programming cornerstone of its host network. Congrats everyone!

Before we pat ourselves on the back too much though, it’s worth looking back on these broadcasting travesties to understand just how they worked and what damage they’ve done to our society and our understanding of what policing should be. As it happens, a truly superb podcast that launched and wrapped earlier this spring called “Running from Cops” does just that.

There are six or eight episodes, depending on whether you count the bonus shows, and they’re all wildly revealing about the frankly immoral methods that these reality shows’ producers used in order to win good ratings. Host Dan Taberski and his team watched almost eight-hundred and fifty episodes of the show (spanning three decades, amazingly) and quantified a host of patterns including the kinds of crimes captured in each episode, the demographics of the police officers and the alleged perpetrators, the extent to which the process of each crime is documented and much more. The team also did a deep dive into “Live PD” and tracked the efforts of one municipality to ban that show from filming its police force—and the blowback that city leaders received. It’s an impressive piece of investigative journalism, and every episode of the podcast is fully absorbing to listen to.

Still, if you’re just going to listen to one them, the episode that packs the most wallop, that will open your eyes the widest and incite the most indignant outrage is episode six, embedded below. In it, the producers somehow get their hands on the raw footage of one episode of “Cops,” something which is shockingly difficult to do. As they share it with the listener, they cast in stark terms the gap between what the show’s cameras actually captured in “documentary” mode and what was edited, finessed, manipulated and ultimately aired as one of the hundreds of episodes of “Cops” that have run on TV for the past three decades. In short, what made it to air was thoroughly dishonest. I always thought “Cops” was crappy but now it seems truly revolting, just like many of the stories we’ve been telling about policing for far too long.